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On the road, with a spotted dog

June 13, 1997

The little spotted dog sat shivering in his cage, the floor still wet from being hosed out a half an hour before. Just a double handful of fur, he did not whine or yelp like the others barracked there. Instead, he kept his head bowed and his eyes looking up, like a child in the schoolyard trying to stand very still, in hopes that he won't attract the attention of the class bully. We took him home.

On the way home, I cradled him in my arms. Disoriented by the motion of the moving car, he struggled and scratched my arms in a frantic attempt to escape. He is stronger than he looks, I thought.

He grew quickly and chased the children when they ran, nipping at their clothes and scaring them. His head was like a rock, bouncing off the door frames when he ran into them, his tail like a meaty billy club that stung when it struck my boys' bare legs.

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My children (one of them, anyway) had begged for a dog, but this was not a cuddly little beagle, but a four-legged tank. My friend Angie Harsh of Pet Hotline told me that the breed, mostly blue-tick hound, was ill-suited to life as a house pet, and would never really "settle down." He will always be as energetic as he is now, she said, until one day when he will just flop over dead.

I began to have second thoughts about this animal, and when the shelter called to remind me that I had signed a contract saying that I couldn't keep him if I didn't get him neutered, I asked them if that meant I could bring him back. People make mistakes, after all, and maybe some other family would be a better match for this manic, muscular canine.

But then one day I noticed that when I came home from work that it wasn't my children who came bounding to the door to greet me. It was the dog, who, unlike my children, does not treat my inquiries about how his day went as an inquisition to be endured, or an invasion of his privacy. I don't get a whole lot of useful information in my chats with the dog, but then I haven't had to warn him that blasting rock music at the level of an air raid siren will damage his hearing, or that one more traffic ticket will void his "good student" car insurance rate.

What I get, besides the companionship, is mostly exercise. He's always ready to go, even when I'm not, and I'm usually better off for going, because I see things I wouldn't if I'd stayed in my chair.

- In early spring, what seems like a wild swirl of dead leaves blows past us toward a small and still leafless tree. The "leaves," actually small brown sparrows, scramble for perches, chatter wildly at each other, then let the next gust lift them into the air again.

- A mud-covered muskrat crawls up on a dry rock to rest up, or so it seems, from the strain of swimming against the swift-moving stream's current, then dives below the surface again.

- Two female wild ducks, their mottled brown feathers making them almost invisible against the muddy stream bank, eye the approach of the dog, who's more interested in a drink than in the ducklings they're sheltering. When he closes to within 10 feet, the waterfowl bolt into the water and motor upstream like a dozen tiny speedboats.

- In a field of grain, a red-winged blackbird perches on a weed top, the semi-circles of color on its wings as bright as blood from a shaving cut. Its clicking call sounds like it's trying to say "Tsk, tsk." But as we near, the bird takes off and circles above us, crying a warning that lasts until we're long past the standing wheat.

- We hear the scratch of squirrel claws against tree bark before we see them, like fingernails on sandpaper. As the dog strains against the leash, they leap from branch to branch until they reach a large walnut tree with a hollow spot about 40 feet above the ground. In they go, scolding us from the safety of the darkness.

- Toward the end of our usual course is an old maple tree with some dead limbs. One Saturday I hear what sounds like the sound of mallet hitting the tree. It's a pileated woodpecker, mostly black like a crow, but with the red and gaudy tufted head of a tropical bird. Each peck dislodges a chunk of wood as big as my thumb, but the nesting hole is oddly placed, on the underside of a dead limb.

A week later we find three dead chicks, with black and white pin feathers and tiny tufts of hair on their heads. A day later, at the end of our walk, we pass the tree again, and somewhere a bird is crying. "Somewhere" is at my feet, and before I can yank him back, bird-dog instinct takes over and the baby bird is crunched like a dry twig.

It's now too warm for the dog to walk along with me, although he wants to. Three miles in 80-degree heat leave him gasping on the floor for hours afterward, too weak to lap water, so I go alone. It's faster when you don't have someone along who wants to inspect every weed top and discarded pigeon feather, but I don't seem to see as much. For that reason, if no other, I'll welcome the first frost.

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